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The Libyan people have been met with fighter jets, bullets, and clubs as Moammar Gadhafi attempts to quell the uprisings overtaking his country. The violence being used against the protesters has been unrivaled in any other Arab country, and what began as protests now resembles something closer to civil war. Thousands have tried fleeing the brutality in fear of their lives, creating a refugee crisis in the process. However, it seems unlikely that Gadhafi picked up such a violent disposition overnight. Why, then, was more international effort not spent exposing Gadhafi’s cruelty before the situation deteriorated to the point of hundreds of people being murdered in the streets?

Since Gadhafi seized control of Libya in 1969, he has been responsible for a number of lethal terrorist attacks, including the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 to New York that left 270 dead. In addition, he has funded a number of guerilla terrorist groups and has denied his people the basic freedoms of democracy. Now, his 40-year rule is culminating with government troops using automatic weapons to ruthlessly exterminate protesters in mosques.

Ironically, amidst Gadhafi’s repressive rule, the international community embraced what is only now emerging as tyranny. In the past few years, for example, the U.S. has had full diplomatic relations with Libya, the prestigious London School of Economics has signed a training contract with the Libyan government, and Libya has been a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council. The oppression of the Libyan people seems to have, at best, been largely overlooked by the global community, and at worst extolled for exemplifying “human rights.”

A trend is emerging in the international community where legitimate human rights violations are ignored until the tension erupts or until mass genocide has taken place. The U.N. knew exactly what Gadhafi represented, and yet chose to ignore it by offering Libya a place on the Human Rights Council. If they did not know Gadhafi’s true nature, it was their obligation to investigate the despot further.

International unawareness is a wide and far-reaching problem, and seems to be getting worse with time. Instead of looking deep into conflicts and considering historical context in formulating decisions, the news and international policy-making bodies seem to take things at superficial face value. To the world at large, if there is no obvious violence or immediate danger, all is fine, and it is okay to embrace leaders of oppressed countries where dissatisfaction is teeming beneath the surface. It is only when huge, drastic riots break out across an entire region and women and children are being massacred publicly that suddenly the misdeeds of decades are recognized.

For example, what was done to save the 800,000 people murdered in Rwanda in 1994, or to prevent Hamas from indiscriminately showering Israel with thousands of rockets, or to mediate the tension between Georgia and Russia? And surely not nearly enough attention has been paid to Sudan, where over 2.2 million people have been killed by civil war. Right now, who is effectively helping the 2.7 million people displaced from Darfur by the Janjaweed, where the violence is only escalating? Yes, the Middle East is taking center stage at the moment, but genocide is occurring globally and nothing is actually being done — lofty discourse and rhetoric alone do not accomplish much.

The media needs to broaden its focus and to learn proactive investigative reporting; once genocide has occurred, it is already too late. Furthermore, serious study of international conflicts should be encouraged, so that a historical understanding of any culture or conflict can contribute to decisions, and not just a naïve labeling of “victim” and “bad guy.”

By learning from our mistakes with Libya, we can actively combat threats before they occur. The U.S. is now taking a strong stance against Libya, seizing over $30 billion in assets and threatening to enforce a no-fly zone. Hopefully, things will change internationally, and we can transform our mindset from reactionary to proactive.